— Electric automaker Tesla must answer a series of questions from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) by August 26 or face penalties of up to $21,000 per day for each day those questions remain unanswered.
Federal safety regulators want to know about Tesla's "Autopilot," a feature currently tested by live drivers traveling highway speeds on real roads. Tesla says the technology is to "assist" a driver and a driver must authorize the use of Autopilot and agree to associated warnings.
The biggest warning? Keep your hands on the wheel at all times and prepare to take control of the vehicle when needed. The system is meant to assist a driver only in particular circumstances on highways with clearly-marked lanes.
NHTSA sent Tesla a letter seeking information about the system that was engaged when former Navy Seal Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, was killed in his Model S. Brown's car smashed head-on into a tractor-trailer that was crossing a highway, killing Mr. Brown and sheering off the top of the Model S.
Tesla, which receives data from all of its vehicles, reports the white color of the trailer wasn't recognized as an obstacle by the cameras on the Model S. The automaker says Autopilot sensed the trailer was part of the bright sky or an overhead sign, which is why no automatic braking was applied before the crash.
Safety regulators have asked Tesla to answer questions about the abilities of Autopilot and how the system works at intersections and with obstacles. NHTSA also wants to know what occurs if cameras or sensors have problems sending accurate signals to the Autopilot system and if a driver is warned about degraded signals.
Safety regulators also want records of how often Autopilot told drivers to grab the wheel and how many times the vehicles automatically slowed down.
Tesla must also answer detailed questions about Autopilot complaints, lawsuits and all crashes that occurred when Autopilot was engaged.
National Transportation Safety Board - Tesla Model S Investigation
In addition to NHTSA's investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has opened a separate investigation to determine what happened in the fatal Model S Florida crash.
It's an unusual step for an agency that typically investigates crashes and accidents involving airplanes, ships and trains. However, if any agency is familiar with complex autonomous technology it's the NTSB. The Safety Board will determine if Autopilot is too confusing for typical car drivers with no specific training in self-driving technology and its limits.
Although the NTSB has no regulatory powers, the agency can make recommendations concerning self-driving rules and regulations.
Tesla Model X Autopilot Crash Investigation (Pennsylvania)
NHTSA said it's also investigating a crash of a 2016 Tesla Model X SUV in Pennsylvania where the driver said Autopilot was engaged.
Albert Scaglione, 77, was driving his Model X allegedly on Autopilot when the SUV hit a concrete median and rolled onto its roof. The Model X landed in the middle of the road, causing injuries to Scaglione and a passenger.
Mr. Scaglione was cited for careless driving by Pennsylvania State Police and Tesla says it has no reason to believe Autopilot had anything to do with the Model X crash.
NHTSA is gathering data to determine if Autopilot was activated at the time of the Pennsylvania crash. The driver had previously told authorities he activated the Autopilot feature before the crash and it was engaged when the crash occurred. However, an accident report makes no mention of Autopilot and Mr. Scaglione hasn't exactly been talkative about the matter, even ignoring repeated messages from the automaker.
Tesla Model X Autopilot Crash (Montana)
Another Model X allegedly with Autopilot engaged crashed recently in Montana when the SUV hit a series of wooden posts used as part of a guardrail, causing severe damage to the side of the Model X but causing no injuries.
Reports say two occupants were in the Model X late at night with Autopilot engaged when the SUV allegedly didn't detect wooden stakes used for the guardrail. The driver says the SUV was traveling 55-60 mph with Autopilot engaged, but posted images indicate the road didn't have clear markings as a dividing line for the roadway.
Tesla says the Model X driver in the Montana crash was warned twice to put his hands on the wheel but ignored the warnings. Based on data received by Tesla, the driver activated a feature called "autosteer," which means the SUV was programmed to reduce speed and come to a stop, at least in certain situations.
The automaker says data proves the driver didn't touch the steering wheel for at least two minutes before the Montana crash.